Three Canadian scientists being removed from an Ebola-affected region of Sierra Leone will not be coming home on a commercial airline, a precautionary measure the Public Health Agency of Canada decided to take despite its confidence that the trio are at a “very low” risk of being infected with the deadly virus.
A spokesman for the agency said in an e-mail on Wednesday that “to protect the privacy of the team members and their families,” the names of the scientists or the arrival time and landing location of their chartered flight will not be released.
“The agency remains committed to helping in the response to this outbreak and is preparing to send another team to Sierra Leone once appropriate steps have been taken to ensure a safe living environment,” the spokesman said.
The PHAC confirmed on Tuesday night that it was finalizing plans to pull its mobile laboratory staff out of Kailahun, a remote jungle outpost in Sierra Leone that is now the site of a World Health Organization probe into how Ebola spread to a Senegalese epidemiologist who was not directly treating patients.
The Senegalese doctor has been flown to Germany for care; the WHO has removed the rest of its team from Kailahun until the investigation is complete.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that it had flown one of its staff members home on a chartered plane from West Africa after the responder had a “low-risk exposure” to the virus, having worked less than a metre away from an international health worker who tested positive for Ebola.
The CDC staff member was reportedly working in Kailahun, but a spokeswoman declined to confirm the location.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said it decided to bring its scientists home after people in the hotel complex in which they were staying tested positive for Ebola.
None of the Canadian team members had direct contact with any of the Ebola-infected individuals and they are not displaying symptoms of the disease, which has killed more than 1,400 people in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria.
A separate and apparently unrelated Ebola outbreak has been confirmed in Congo.
The Canadian scientists are “voluntarily isolating” themselves, the PHAC said, although the agency did not explain precisely what that means.
The scientists will be monitored closely when they return to Canada, having their temperatures checked for at least 21 days – the maximum incubation period of the disease.
Ebola is not contagious until a patient begins showing symptoms such as high fever, headache, weakness, muscle pain and sore throat, followed by vomiting, diarrhea and, in some cases, bleeding. The virus is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, not through the air.
The Senegalese doctor worked in the same unit as the Canadians, who were helping to control the outbreak by rapidly diagnosing or ruling out cases of Ebola in Kailahun, a deeply forested area near Sierra Leone’s border with Guinea, where the outbreak began.
The mobile lab was not treating patients; it was supporting a Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) treatment centre erected in the bush outside the small town of Kailahun.
The WHO’s director of communications, Christy Feig, said the organization is investigating how the Senegalese doctor became infected with the virus and plans to send its staff back as soon as the situation is safe.
“It could have been a straightforward thing; he was exposed in an accident with an infected patient, it could have been that simple,” Ms. Feig said Wednesday in an interview from Liberia. “But it also is a little unusual so we want to give it a close look so we can make sure there’s not something about the set up there that’s putting more people at risk.”
He is the first person working on an Ebola outbreak through the WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network to have contracted the disease.
The Canadian team was also in Sierra Leone under the aegis of the outbreak response network, which is known by the acronym GOARN.
The outbreak has been particularly deadly for front-line health workers in West Africa, more than 120 of whom have died, according to the WHO.
MSF said Wednesday that it has no intention of pulling its people back from Kailahun or any of the other regions ravaged by an Ebola outbreak that has killed more people than all previous outbreaks combined.
The aid organization has 184 international and 1,800 local staff fighting the virus at projects in West Africa, 10 of whom are Canadian. At least one is based in Kailahun, home to a recently expanded 80-bed treatment facility.
“We are not pulling our people out of Kailahun or anywhere else in West Africa – we are actively sending more people,” Christina Campbell, a press officer for MSF Canada, said in an e-mail. “We expect to send at least [five] more Canadians by October.”
Separately, GlobalMedic, a Canadian emergency response charity, announced on Wednesday that it is dispatching a rapid response team to Sierra Leone and Liberia to equip hospitals and health-care workers with medicine, isolation shelters and personal protective equipment including gowns, face masks and gloves.
Tim Jagatic, a Windsor, Ont., doctor who returned on Aug. 3 from a stint treating patients at the MSF centre in Kailahun, said the Canadian scientists played a critical role in battling the outbreak by analyzing blood samples to determine if patients were positive for Ebola or clear of the virus and healthy enough to be sent home.
He was in Kailahun at the same time as a previous team of Canadian scientists; that trio has since left and been replaced by the three staff members that the PHAC is removing from Sierra Leone.
They are the third team from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg to be deployed to Sierra Leone since mid-June, according to the PHAC.
The NML – which is home to the only biosafety level 4 containment facility in the country – has sent its mobile lab to assist in quelling past Ebola outbreaks elsewhere in Africa.
Every morning in Kailahun, Dr. Jagatic and his health-worker colleagues would don their personal protective equipment – a spacesuit-like outfit covering every inch of the body – and draw blood from patients at the MSF centre. They would send the samples to the Canadian mobile lab in the morning and have diagnoses in hand by the afternoon, he said.
“They were fantastic,” Dr. Jagatic, a general practitioner with a specialty in tropical medicine, said of the Canadian scientists with whom he worked. “They were very co-operative, very transparent in everything that they were doing. It was a pleasure to work with them.”
The WHO said lab work previously performed at Kailahun would be temporarily moved to Kenema, the third largest city in Sierra Leone and, for now, home to the only lab analyzing Ebola samples in the country.
With a report from The Canadian Press.